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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ben Tarnoff's The Bohemians Makes Mark Twain S.F.'s Own

Posted By on Tue, Apr 1, 2014 at 11:13 AM


Its the 1860s and San Francisco is booming: the Gold Rush has fueled the economy of the City and everything is growing and expanding at an exponential rate.

San Francisco is getting larger -- not just in infrastructure but in population. Innovative technology and overflowing wealth attract multitudes of outsiders and San Francisco is sprawling with cultural and linguistic diversity.

With these hoards of people, there is a surge in literary demand, creating the ripe and perfect environment for writers and poets.

And it's in this plush, literary haven -- brimming with stories and characters -- where Ben Tarnoff's begins his recently published historical novel: The Bohemians.

In his book, Tarnoff chronicles the early begins of four important writers in early frontier literature: literary golden boy Bret Harte, struggling gay poet and travel writer Charles Warren Stoddard, gorgeous and haunted poet Ina Coolbrith, and the leader of these bohemian bards -- a young Mark Twain who was fleeing his draft for the Civil War.

Tarnoff, who is a native San Franciscan, writes in a fast paced and energetic manner that's engrossing and sheds light on this group of writers who reinvented American literature. Yet he lends credibility and historical weight by having 50 pages of end notes to provide context and accuracy.

Tarnoff heavily focuses on Twain throughout the historical narrative, stringing him through various events and past various characters. But what Tarnoff really accomplishes with The Bohemians is that he takes one of America's beloved authors and strips away the stereotypical association that he wrote only about the South and the Mississippi River and makes him one of San Francisco's own.

As a group, each character had his insecurities and doubts, as young writers do, but they each relied on one other to pioneer a style that was avant-garde, and went against the norms of the the massive East Coast publishing houses and journals at the time. Twain and company documented the bawdy and adventurous personalities and dialects encountered in San Francisco, thus giving the West a realistic but quasi-magical quality portrayal in letters. The literature of these authors was a mixture of high brow and low: It appeased the critics, but it was enjoyable and accessible to the masses.

San Francisco was the ultimate school and professor for this bohemian company and fostered the "Twainian" style of writing, one where the author documents the most minimal of details in a casual and matter of fact style that grants the work an air of authenticity. It is by a transient association that one can say Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain, in part, because of San Francisco. Even though Twain left San Francisco after a brief period and went to live in various part of the country, San Francisco was a pivotal part of him because it was here where he mastered and spearheaded his writing style that we cherish to this day and influenced other great American writers like Ernest Hemingway and Jack London (Coolbrith also had a great impact on London).

Ultimately, Tarnoff makes Twain's brief days in San Francisco deeper than that Twain phrase (that he may have not actually said) that tour guides like to throw around when talking about San Francisco's perpetually cool climate: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."

Tarnoff removes Twain from his legendary pedestal, making him human, relatetable, and an honorary San Franciscan.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Juan at @JuanPDeAnda, and like us on Facebook

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About The Author

Juan De Anda

Juan De Anda

Juan De Anda is a cultural correspondent with a concentration in tourism, literature, and lifestyle and has been writing for SF Weekly since 2013. As an avid traveler, he enjoys discovering destinations abroad as well as the never-ending hidden gems of San Francisco. #DondeAndaJuanDeAnda?


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